A few days ago the “Science Day” took place in Bolzano/Bozen at EURAC. The Science Day is a type of fair where projects, proposals and ideas for teaching science in the Autonomous Province of Bolzano/Bozen were presented. The ORTLER project was presented as well and we were able to see close up how much has been happening around this project so far. We will soon publish new posts including pictures and reports about the work currently going on in all participating schools.
Today we have the honour of publishing an interview with Dr. Paolo Gabrielli, a researcher from the Trentino region in Italy, who is also the scientific coordinator of the project. He was able to answer to some of our questions shortly before returning to work at the Byrd Polar Centre of the Ohio State University of Columbus (USA).
Paolo, you are shortly due to go back to the USA. Four ice cores, three of them reaching down to the rock underneath the glacier, were extracted. Were you expecting such a result a few months ago?
To tell you the truth, yes, I was expecting this, although the extraction of four ice cores was our most ambitious goal. We had prepared everything in such a way that would allow this result. I would have considered extracting one such ice core, reaching down to the rock, a success. This was not a certainty at the outset… especially considering the technical difficulties we had during the operations.
What are the unique features of this project?
It is the first attempt at paleo-environmental reconstruction at such heights in the Eastern Alps. This research is also inherently connected with the research on climate change, glaciers and today’s permafrost in South Tyrol. A further very particular aspect is the education project, which is aimed at high school students. Some among them were even able to visit the operation site.
What connections could there be to the data collected through Oetzi? Will the data from the ice cores just collected complement the other data?
If I was a betting man, I would say no, but with this kind of research, you never know until the deepest layer of ice has been analysed.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome before and during the expedition?
The first obstacle was removing the common preconception that the Ortler glacier was completely temperate and would therefore not be suitable for a paleo-climatic and environmental reconstruction. The second difficulty was coordinating the work of so many people from so many different cultures and with such different working methods. A third obstacle was the perforation of the Oberer Ortlerferner glacier, during which the hole froze up every few hours because of the melting water produced by the firn from the upper layers.
What, from a scientific point of view, was the biggest fear?
We feared that it might already be too late to extract an ice core from this glacier, since the exceptional warming of the past 30 years could have erased this precious ice archive forever. This could have happened if the melt water production from the upper layers had reached the lower layers of the glacier. We managed to save an ice archive, which could have been destroyed within a short time.
Could you explain to us the main human and interpersonal relationship aspects of this type of expedition?
It is difficult to give a general view of this, since everyone reacts differently to various situations. We had euphoric moments, such as when we realised that the base of the glacier was still cold, but also moments of sheer panic, such as when we thought we had lost the drill in the hole. We congratulated each other on our successes, but we also sent each other packing a number of times. At such a height, the interpersonal relationships are more authentic and direct than in a laboratory, which obviously brings positive and negative aspects along with it…
Together with your team from the Byrd Polar Research Centre at the Ohio State University, you took part in several similar expeditions in recent years. What set the Ortler project apart from the others you had participated in before?
This time we managed to reach the goals we had set for ourselves, even quicker, with lower costs and with more collaborators than usual. It was particularly helpful that the glacier was located in a Western country and on a mountain, the Ortler, which is not remote at all compared to other operation sites (Tibet, Antarctic, the Andes).
Thanks to the glaciology camp, 20 high school students had the opportunity to get to know you and your work for a week at 2,200 metres above sea level at your base camp at the Stelvio pass. What would you suggest to these students for their future?
The real challenge will be for each of them to understand what is the best choice for themselves. In order to do so, they should learn to understand how they tick and always keep believing in that, without letting the opinions of the masses influence them.
How much work is the entire research team now expecting?
To date, we have completed more or less 20 per cent of the work. From now on, we will be working mainly together with the universities of Venice and Innsbruck in order to obtain the necessary funds to allow us to analyse the ice cores. We will have to employ three PhD students or post docs, who will be working full-time for 2-3 years analysing the ice cores in laboratories in the USA, Italy and Austria. The first results will therefore only be available in two years…
Could you help us to understand what it means to bring ten researchers up to almost 4,000 meters for two weeks in order to extract more than 200 metres of ice cores?
The main work is not practical, but administrative. This includes sending the technical material and the ice from and back to the USA, dealing with customs… In addition all necessary permits have to be obtained from the National Park, the government department which manages state-owned land and property, the municipality and the Province in order to work at the research site. People and activities also need to be coordinated at such a height, which includes logistics and human resources, costs and contingencies. Once all these aspects have been dealt with, you also need a bit of luck. That was something we had: for two weeks the meteorological conditions were excellent.
Who was the most important person who enabled this project to be carried out?
In such a large project many important people are involved, but without one particular person, the project would have probably never taken place: Hanspeter Staffler of the Fire Protection and Civil Division of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, who believed from the outset in the scientific potential of an international climate research project in South Tyrol.
Finally, what are your greatest satisfaction and your biggest regret from this expedition?
The greatest satisfaction was seeing how my initial ideas attracted so much interest, which ranged from scientific research to educational aspects. Between 23 September and 6 October we managed to bring almost 60 people to the summit of the Ortler, many of whom are experts in their area of activity. If we also count the people involved who were working in the valley, this number would probably be three times as high. My biggest regret is the fact that Roberto Filippi, who died last March on Mont Blanc, could not be part of this adventure. This event was hard to deal with. It was probably the hardest test we had to pass this year….